Addressing Ultra-short Race Pace Training


By Dan McCarthy//High Performance Consultant

Ultra-short race pace training (USRPT) has been the topic of conversation amongst coaches recently. The concept has been around for decades, but has enjoyed a fresh resurgence. This space does not provide for a full discussion of the theory, but there is value in discussing one of the foundations, the Principal of Specificity.


The Principal of Specificity is a great topic because it seems to be a key junction where ultra-short training at race pace either gains or loses advocates. According to the Principal of Specificity, training must be specific to the sporting event in order to achieve performance improvement. This suggests:

  • Practice not related to a specific activity is irrelevant.
    • For example, a swimmer may do a set of 30 x 25 fly on :45 trying to hold their 100-yard fly pace, only counting the successful repetitions; taking a repetition off when they fail; and stopping the set all-together when they cannot get back on their pace.
  • During ultra-short race pace training swimmers must swim using the same skill and rate they use during a race. Failure to do so will lead to wasted, or even worse, counter-productive practice time.
  • Relatively well-conditioned and skilled swimmers do not benefit from general activities, like pulling drills, kicking with a board or dry-land training.

To be fair, the Principal of Specificity does encourage general activities for inadequately conditioned and poorly skilled swimmers; the sentiment being that any activity remotely related to swimming will bring a benefit. The concept that highly skilled and conditioned athletes get no benefit from general activities is where the Principal of Specificity loses converts. Amongst the concerns:

  • The ceiling for the acquisition of skills like coordination and strength may be genetically predisposed, but their development comes in fits and starts and can be encouraged by external stimuli.
  • An athlete may have deficiencies or imbalances in their stroke or posture which predisposes them to injury; however, an effective dry-land program (evaluation through functional movement screening, rehabilitation and strengthening) can correct those issues and bring a healthier and stronger athlete to the pool.
  • Many coaches believe that when acquiring a new skill or a technique tweak, performing that movement against resistance builds specific strength through that newly acquired range of motion. Through the years, resistance has been defined as pull buoys, paddles, power towers, buckets, etc.

Ultra-short race pace training is a well thought-out and well-researched theory. In fact, many coaches have been employing facets of the theory for years; really only shunning the all-or-none position of some in the USRPT community. Race pace training should be perfect and a rehearsal for competition, but a good strength and conditioning program is an asset to an athlete, not a counter-productive waste of time. I look forward to the impact of USRPT on American Swimming and particularly how it is experimented with and applied by our coaches.